Israel’s painful and far-reaching disengagement from Gaza and four West Bank settlements has now been completed, far more efficiently than even the most optimistic estimates.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza has the support of a comfortable majority of Israelis, the resulting pain and emotion is being felt throughout Israeli society. These unprecedented steps, including the uprooting of families, homes, and even the moving of graves, will obviously have repercussions in the region and within Israeli society for years to come.
However, even now, as TV screens and newspapers were filled with the dramatic scenes from the Gaza Strip, it was clear that the fate of the settlements in the Gaza Strip was sealed. While there was some violence, including a deplorable terrorist attack by a Jewish settler that left four Palestinians dead in the West Bank, this was never going to stop the pullout. What will happen after the withdrawal, however, is still very much unclear.
Ariel Sharon’s courageous decision to leave Gaza and transfer control to the Palestinian Authority reaffirms Israel’s ongoing commitment to peace, despite four and a half years of terrorism. It has the potential to substantially bolster the peace process, providing that the Palestinians demonstrate a reciprocal willingness to take constructive action.
The Palestinians have a real chance of advancing their national aspirations for the first time since the Taba January 2001 summit, where then PA chairman Yasser Arafat rejected a comprehensive peace plan.
The proposed plan offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Bill Clinton, included the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Instead we have seen five years of terrorism at great cost to both sides.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is faced with an historic opportunity to make the Gaza withdrawal a success, thereby ensuring that the process toward establishing an independent Palestinian state continues. Whether this opportunity is seized or missed rests in the hands of the Palestinian leadership.
The most essential step required from the Palestinians is to take concrete actions to end terrorism against Israel. That is the first step required in the Roadmap and was also clearly reflected by US President George W. Bush’s vision of peace, in which he pledged to work for peace and a Palestinian state. This was further echoed by German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who in a recent meeting with Mahmoud Abbas cautioned that a Palestinian state could not be established without an end to Palestinian terrorism.
Judging by recent events, concerns about what will happen in Gaza the day after Israel leaves are well founded. In recent weeks, the Iranian backed Islamic Jihad has carried out a suicide bombing in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya, and Hamas has launched more than 100 rockets from Gaza into Israel.
While terrorist groups adhered to the PA’s call to not carry out attacks during the Israeli withdrawal, intelligence assessments indicate that terrorist attacks may well resume, and with greater ferocity, after Israel leaves. The terror groups have certainly been using the current period of calm to stockpile rockets and explosives to be used at a time of their own choosing.
Moreover, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made their intentions clear in recent statements announcing that their campaign of terrorism would continue until they achieve the destruction of Israel. Just as worrying are statements made by PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia that the Gaza withdrawal is only the first step towards the liberation of Jerusalem.
In coming months the international community will be watching closely to see whether the Palestinian Authority is able to control the radical groups, and whether Abbas has the strength to confront these radical factions that openly challenge the Palestinian Authority.
The coming weeks will tell whether the Palestinians will genuinely act against terrorism in the Gaza Strip and set themselves on track towards nationhood, or whether the Gaza Strip will turn into “Hamastan” embroiled in radicalism and terror and crushing Palestinian national aspirations, yet again.
Like Israel, Egypt is extremely worried by the possibility of Hamas taking over Gaza and creating another Islamist extremist front, further escalating their lengthy internal struggle against the extremists of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This is why Egypt has agreed to assume control over the Gaza-Egypt border, and is providing training and other assistance to the Palestinian security forces.
Making the Gaza experiment a success will undoubtedly require the support of the international community — this includes financial support from Europe and the US, but even more importantly the involvement of Arab nations in pressuring Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups to abandon terrorism.
The ball is now in the court of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, but they will need political guidance and security assistance from Arab nations, especially Egypt and Jordan.